Amy Cordalis by Kate Donadson Photography

Amy Cordalis

Yurok Tribe General Counsel,
Klamath, CA

Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe’s General Counsel, is the first enrolled Yurok tribal member to hold that position. Amy is dedicated to defending and advancing self-governance for her tribe. Amy comes from a long line of Yuroks who have fought to defend their rights and their heritage.

Her great-uncle’s pivotal Supreme Court case, Mattz v. Arnett, confirmed the Yurok Reservation as Indian Country – not only upholding treaty rights to the river and fish, but affirming the Yurok Tribe’s sovereignty. The Yurok are a fishing people, and their existence is woven into and dependent on the river. In 2002, when Amy was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, the largest fish kill in US history took place – killing an estimated 60,000-80,000 salmon as the Federal Government permitted water to be diverted from the Klamath River for irrigation to the Klamath Reclamation Project in Oregon. It was a pivotal moment for the Yurok Tribe, and for Amy, who decided to attend law school to fight for her people and the river. After obtaining her JD from the University of Denver College of Law, Amy worked for the Native American Rights Fund and Berkey Williams LLP on a wide range of Indian law issues.

Amy notes that over the last decade, the 14th Amendment has played an important role in protecting Native American voting rights. “While the 14th Amendment has played an important role in protecting United States citizens,” she notes, “it is just beginning to benefit Native American people and tribes.”

Amy’s incredible work shows how historically marginalized people and communities can fight for full realization of the 14th Amendment to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and enjoys the same fundamental equal protection of the law.

What does the 14th Amendment mean to you?

The 14th Amendment guarantees citizens of this Country three critical rights: citizenship if you are born in the United States, equal protection of the law, and due process prior to deprivation of life, liberty, or property. The equal protection and due process clause apply explicitly to all persons, not just citizens.

As these rights apply to Native Americans, the history of the 14th Amendment highlights the struggle to define the relationship between the Federal Government and Native American tribes and people.

The 14th Amendment didn’t apply to “un-taxed” Indians when it was passed, excluding most Native Americans. Indians were considered “wards of the state,” a legal status not worthy of citizenship, which justified the federal government’s taking of Indian lands, resources, children, and religion. It wasn’t until 56 years after the passage of the 14th Amendment that Congress passed an act granting Indians citizenship in 1924. As to equal protection, courts have categorized Native Americans as a political class, rather than as a racial group, based on tribal membership. While this allows for a lesser level of scrutiny than other races, which may appear unfair, it recognizes tribal sovereignty.

Now that Native American people enjoy the privileges of the 14th, we have the opportunity to assert our sovereignty, on equal footing with other people and entities.

How are you still fighting for equal protection today?

The previous generations of my family didn’t enjoy equal protection, even though it was a constitutional mandate. They never had access to the legal system, and in fact, the legal system supported the taking of their resources.

The 14th Amendment means that my family, and Native American tribes and people, can begin to reclaim their resources in a fair and just way.

The 14th Amendment gives me hope that I may pursue life, liberty, and happiness. I see the 14th Amendment as guaranteeing an even playing field for us all to grow and pursue our dreams. Whether I am advocating for tribal treaty rights, speaking for the salmon, or guiding my children, I fight for equal protection every day.

How can other people #Powerthe14th?

I hope to use the 14th to create a future that addresses historical wrongs, learns from mistakes, and then grows in a system that applies the same legal protections to all people regardless of our differences.

The 14th Amendment embodies the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. Remember the 14th Amendment. Learn and remember our collective history. Apply the theory of equal protection of the law to all you do.

Photo: Kate Donaldson Photography

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